Belmont `more focused' 2nd time around

Atlantic Sun champ set for Georgetown

March 15, 2007|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun reporter

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Belmont.

Belmont?

Is that a hotel, or a British luxury sedan? A cigarette, or maybe a backup singer in an old doo-wop group?

No, this Belmont is in the NCAA men's tournament, just like North Carolina and Georgetown, its first-round foe today (approximately 2:45 p.m., chs. 13, 9) in the East Regional at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum.

Unlike the Hoyas, Tar Heels and other haughty contenders, these Bruins are a bear of a different color. For the second straight year, they're a No. 15 seed, but the Belmont Bruins aren't the wide-eyed group that got blitzed by UCLA, 78-44, in their first NCAA tournament appearance last March.

A private Christian institution with fewer than 4,500 students in Nashville, Tenn., Belmont is accustomed to sending its alumni to the GOO - Grand Ole Opry - rather than the NBA.

The Bruins' athletic heritage was built in the NAIA, a national association that remains obscure to much of the country.

If that's not enough to set Belmont apart, what other NCAA team began the school year fretting that its center had cancer?

Boomer Herndon is fine - more about him in a bit - and so is Belmont, a success story that starts with coach Rick Byrd.

The Knoxville native revels in the fact that he has given his home state a fourth team in this year's NCAA tournament, to go with Memphis, Vanderbilt and Tennessee.

Byrd, 53, was a student assistant coach for the Volunteers in the mid-1970s, when they included Bernard King and Washington Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

This is Byrd's 21st season at Belmont. He has 516 coaching wins and maintained the Bruins' momentum as they shifted from NAIA power to Division I independent in 1996 to the clutch club of the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Byrd lost two starters from last season's NCAA tournament team. Last August, he feared that he would be without another, when Herndon returned from an Athletes in Action tour of Taiwan with a high fever that persisted.

"They ended up doing X-rays all over my body," Herndon said. "One of the last X-rays found a mass in my chest that was a little smaller than a baseball. They thought, because of where it was, above my heart, that it would be cancer. They had to cut through my lat muscle and spread my ribs and do a biopsy."

The mass wasn't cancerous. Herndon traces its likely cause to a fishbone that got caught in his throat while overseas, a tiny matter that caused much anxiety.

"We had a lot to think about, and a lot to pray about," senior guard Josh Goodwin said. "To find out it was OK, that took a load off of us."

Herndon, who borrowed his nickname from former Maryland and NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason, returned to average 10.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in less than 17 minutes a game. Justin Hare, a 6-2 junior, was a first-team Atlantic Sun choice and an academic All-American.

"The good thing about our program is that we've developed a certain niche," Byrd said. "We have kids that are serious students. Our team GPA is well over 3.0. We've been able to recruit the good basketball players that are also good students."

Music City USA probably leads the nation in session-worthy artists per capita, and Belmont's alums include Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Ann Womack and the late Minnie Pearl.

As the Bruins routed top seed East Tennessee State, 94-67, in the Atlantic Sun title game, the ESPN cameras kept returning to country singer Vince Gill, who has partnered with Byrd in a charity that benefits Belmont's School of Music Business.

That win boosted Belmont to No. 25 in the national rankings - of mid-majors.

"Last year was the thrill of a lifetime," Byrd said of Belmont's NCAA tournament debut. "This year is a very different feeling. It's very hard not to be just happy to be there when your school goes for the first time. I didn't do a good job of negating that, because I was just happy to be there, too.

"This year, we're more focused, but that doesn't make us as good as Georgetown."

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

TV tomorrow

Channel 13 will telecast the following games tomorrow:

12:15 p.m. / / Virginia vs. Albany

2:30 p.m. / / Notre Dame vs. Winthrop

7:10 p.m. / / Virginia Tech vs. Illinois

9:40 p.m.* / / Kentucky vs. Villanova

*-approximate time

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